Zao Wou-ki has been in love with art for over 70 years. Painting, for this artist, is many things. It is an intimate friend with whom he can converse. It has become a mirror reflecting his inner world, a safe harbour against the blows of the outside world, and a battleground where he struggles to harness the oil medium to his imagination. His long journey through acquaintance, love, antagonism, and finally intimacy with the creative process began as a boy. His grandfather instructed Zao Wou-ki a rigorous training in calligraphy, his father gave talks on his beloved collection of ink paintings and calligraphy works, and his uncle brought postcards of works of the great from Paris, all of which provided great artistic atmosphere for his childhood.
His training in the oil medium formally began when he passed the admission examination for the Hangzhou Academy of Arts at the age of 14; it was then he decided to pursue art as his career. His dream gave him courage, even in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War when the artist, fellow students and teachers had to retreat toward the inland in a stringent journey in which many of his companions gave up their artistic quests. Zao's determination, however, did not waver. After the war ended, with encouragement from his teacher Lin Fengmian, he resolutely set out for France to study painting.
As a student, Zao Wou-ki had not been very keen to embrace the concepts in traditional Chinese painting; he believed that Chinese art had lost its creative impulse since the 16th century because the works thereafter were stifled by repetitive and mechanical imitation of the Tang and Song dynasties, Zao was eager to learn about Western art. He left China to find a place that would give him freedom and ignite his creativity. He wanted to understand the possibilities of art, to genuinely understand the Impressionists that Lin Fengmian had spoken in his lectures, and artists such as Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso that he had seen in foreign magazines. Zao's decision to leave for France was the beginning of an exploratory process that would ultimately unite Eastern and Western aesthetics and bring about a renaissance in modern Chinese art. Zao Wou-ki forged a link between the art of China and the West, creating a spirit in which Chinese and Western cultures merge and an artistic space full of dreams and the power of emotions.
Arriving in France, Zao was swept up in the full tide of Western abstract painting. He began his first phase by painting works that were expressive but still figurative; his paintings later became filled with symbolic motifs and images, and in the end, he developed a highly expressive, fully abstract style. Zao's artistic world continued to expand as he journeyed further in the creation of his individual style. The four works offered at this season's Evening Sale present a picture of this great artist's continuous growth through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, demonstrating the ongoing development of a uniquely personal style.
Zao Wou-ki remembers how, arriving in Paris in 1948, he desperately hoped to avoid being labelled as a 'Chinese painter.' He knew that he had already developed a mature brush technique in Chinese ink painting, and feared that his creativity would suffer if he only repeated what he already knew. He therefore decided to give up ink painting and devoted himself to a study of Western styles. He learned much from the way space was presented in the work of Cezanne and Picasso, but more than that, he found a world within Paul Klee's work, half representational and half surreal, that exerted a powerful attraction. Zao Wou-ki once praised a work of Klee by saying,"It was just one little canvas, but because of the spatial effects he created, it looked incredibly broad. His understanding and love for Chinese art were evident. I was dazzled by the way those tiny symbols, set within amultidimensional space, could create a whole world!" The world of imagination depicted by Klee set Zao's mind to work, looking forthe poetic voice and the inner images of his own imagination.
In 1951 and 1952 Zao travelled in Spain, Italy, and Switzerland, hoping to find poetic images other than those of Chinese, landscape paintings, that could inspire him and be useful as painting subjects. He observed in detail the architecture of various cities, noting that "looking at the architecture of cities helps me think about the arrangement of space on the canvas." Cathédrale et Ses Environs (Lot 1005), from 1951, shows how the artist transformed cathedral architecture and human figures into his own simplified lines and motifs; their finely planned placement within the picture space creates an appealingly graceful, nimble, and buoyant scene. Against the lyrical and poetic background of Cathédrale et Ses Environs, Zao limns out various scenic objects of interest in fine, inky black lines. Lines of varying length and thickness appear in the centre of the canvas and stitch together the varying colours of the scene: the viewer seems to begin from a riverside park in the very near foreground and cross over to the river's far side, then, proceeding through the buildings there, approaches the grand cathedral to gaze finally at the fine curve of a new moon in the sky above. The painting as a whole constitutes a fully realized and richly varied scene, with subtly highlighted points of interest. In Zao Wou-ki's hands, this still scene is imbued with the atmosphere of a tranquil and poetic ballad; Cathédrale et Ses Environs for that reason well represents the first phase of Zao's creative career. Zao also uses the end of his wooden-handled paintbrush to create fine lines by scraping away pigments; these lines, juxtaposed against the broader lines within the varying thicknesses of Zao's pigments, enrich the textural beauty of the brushwork in the canvas. Zao's finely etched black lines, scratchy and tremulous, constitute a typical motif of this period. Henri Michaux once described Zao's early 1950s works, "Half revealed, yet hidden; broken, yet connected; lines moving spontaneously, revealing the pulse of his whimsical imagination-these are the things Zao Wou-ki likes. Suddenly, a joyful air leaps out at you from the canvas, the special atmosphere of the village or countryside in China. This kind of effervescence appears . . . within a welter of symbolic motifs." Zao's special achievement was the way his poetic imagination permeated the visual space of the picture, and he also, in a kind of distant echo of Klee's outlook, blended East and West and the atmosphere of both poetry and painting in his work.
Unlike his paintings prior to 1950, in Cathédrale et Ses Environs, Zao's background consists of only two basic tones, light bronze and verdigris, and he focuses on a layered effect similar to the way ink wash on Chinese xuan paper. By doing so he presents an ever-changing variety of tones derived from these individual hues, and his space is built up by means of these flowing, multilayered effects. Zao's ingenious oil technique here is closely tied to his first experience producing lithograph prints in 1949. His years of training in ink-wash techniques and his familiarity with the effects of Chinese ink on xuan paper resulted in the creation of prints that even Western lithograph artists admired. In creating that first group of prints, Zao studiously ignored the advice of experts and added large amount of water in the colours, which yielded exciting results. Because printing plates were expensive, Zao reduced the colours to only three. The three coloured lithographs he produced, with pigments running and blending like Chinese inks, became a source of inspiration for his oil work. In Cathédrale et Ses Environs we see how the artist likewise limits his colours, creating a flowing and beautiful presentation in which single shades sometimes deepen and sometimes disperse, leading to the ink-wash effects that appear within Zao's oil medium. In the foreground particularly, areas of colour reach acrossthe canvas like spreading inks, interspersed with broad textured brushstrokes and dabs of both bronze and verdigris tones. Shifting hues within broad blocks of colour create multilayered effects; like the varied looks achieved when ink seeps into xuan paper, we find haloes of spreading pigments, areas of either concentrated or dispersed colour, wetness or dryness. Physical forms and empty space seem to blend into one another in a world steeped in quiet reverie; layers of bronze and verdigris tones crisscross and blend, producing rich layering and added compositional interest. Zao's visual symphony stands at the crossroads between day and night, calling to mind the moments at dusk when the last rays of the sun begin to fade into the evening sky.
Because of Klee's painting, with its hints of Eastern essence, Zao Wou-ki came to realize that he could find inspiration in his native Chinese tradition, and further, that he could surpass it. He began turning once again to his Chinese cultural origins, and ideas he encountered during his studies in Hangzhou now took on greater importance. During that earlier period, he had accepted Lin Fengmian's theories about the need for reformation and innovation in Chinese art; his departure for France reflected the desire to find room for imagination and change within a Chinese tradition that had already lost its creative impulse. What Zao meant by "room for imagination and change" once again seems to echo his desire for a world of symbols and poetic feeling such as Klee had created. Klee's use of symbolic motifs and even letters and numbers in his paintings brought to mind for Zao the use of symbols in Chinese culture, and in particular, the 5000-year history of the Chinese writing system. Lin Fengmian, in a 1926 paper entitled 'The Future of Eastern and Western Art', wrote, "The painting and calligraphy that have come down to us from ancient times share a common origin. Calligraphy derives from pictographs representing sun, moon, wood and mountain; pictographic characters are in fact paintings. But are the images we find in these characters drawn from nature, or from imagination? Take 'sun' for example: it was originally a circle, representing the disc of the sun, but with a dot in the center, perhaps symbolizing the idea of light. So we cannot say that this kind of calligraphy resulted entirely from the imitation of nature; it is partly flavored by the products of the imagination." Zao adopted this idea and began looking at these ancient pictographic characters as a primitive form of abstract line drawing. He took a closer look at carved oraclebone inscriptions (Fig. 1), and considered the shapes engraved on Shang and Zhou bronze vessels, shapes representing animals, people, clouds, or thunder (Fig. 2). Then he transformed these into creative visual and pictographic motifs of his own. His insight into such motifs led him away from stereotypical, figurative forms of painting and produced a new visual language; it gave him freedom to choose subjects for his paintings apart from any narrative considerations.
1954 was an important year of creation for Zao Wou-ki. As he describes it, "I painted a large-scale painting in 1954 called Vent, which was my first non-narrative painting. It expressed the fluttering of leaves in the wind and the ripples raised on the water surface by the passing breeze." This was a world-changing event for the artist. He had left behind the narrative sense of earlier depictions of landscape or Chinese artifacts, and began looking at the world with new eyes. He began depicting the things thatcannot be seen: the energy of life, the wind, movement, the life within objects, and colours unfolding and merging into different hues. He had arrived at a new artistic world of infinite variety, and in this new context his expressive use of lines and motifs derived from calligraphy, oracle-bone inscriptions, and engravings began to show both greater liveliness and control. Zao's 5-6-54 (Herbes) (Lot 1008) was painted in 1954. Like his painting Vent from the same year (now in the collection of the Centre Pompidou National Museum of Modern Art/Centre for Industrial Creation), it powerfully documents Zao's return to his native traditions. In this nonrepresentational, non-narrative work, Zao reshapes his creative approach, using the foundation of Chinese traditional view of nature and universe and its historical art of line-drawing. Art historians have coined the term "oracle-bone series" for the works from this creative phase of Zao's; 5-6-54 (Herbes) is one of the works from the series most worthy of art historical study.
Broken lines echoing oracle-bone inscriptions are clearly visible in 5-6-54 (Herbes) where inky black lines like primitively written characters weave through the dark green background. The lines are sometimes broad and heavy, and at other times are reminiscent of Klee's fragmented letters, or perhaps the falling strokes, pressure strokes, or other turns of the calligraphy brush. They evoke also the simple but lively strokes of primitive line art, out of which Zao Wou-ki forges a fresh new world, brave and bold, in a setting of boundless mists. Zao's sturdy lines convey a loyal, resolute strength; they move in a rhythmic progression of layered, overlapping, and interwoven patterns, lending the work both musicality and an architectonic feeling. Shorter rhythmic cadences blend into longer ones, either in balance or in motion, creating an unique rhythmic feeling for the paintinig. These calligraphic figurations weave together and disperse or meet and fly apart again, like dancers creating rhythms of movement in a field of time and empty space.
While this painting is informed, through Zao's use of ancient Chinese characters, with their sense of deep antiquity and historical sweep, it cannot be fully described by means of such weighty terms. As Zao once said about this period, "My paintings begin to move and come to life, giving birth to numerous shapes and forms, and I dare to use colours I had previously been afraid to try." For 5-6-54 (Herbes), Zao chooses a solid and weighty black-green, yet with it he manages to create a space that is vibrant and animated. Zao put serious effort into creating this kind of vibrant space; as he summed up in 1985 at the Hangzhou Academy of the Arts, "Space is what is important in painting. The French call it 'espace,' and if you don't have it, your painting will never relax and open up. When you paint and you get this feeling the canvas will always move. Paintings should have both tension and relaxation, as should sketches: tense when necessary, and relaxed where they should be relaxed." In 5-6-54 (Herbes) Zao Wou-ki finds an ideal combination of tension and relaxation, motion and stillness, where line and colour work together to generate structure and produce endless transformations. The resulting work conveys deep thought and imagination within a space that is buoyant, animated, and airy.
Zao's oracle-bone series can be seen as the earliest phase in his return to his Chinese cultural roots. As Zao has noted, "As I think more deeply, I gradually rediscover China" Zao continued on his quest for new artistic forms, delving into both traditional Chinese art and the abstract painting of the West. His insight into the scenic paintings of Tang and Song, and his deep involvement with nature, became sources for his later creation. Zao's instructor Lin Fengmian in 1929 delivered a paper entitled 'A New Theory of Chinese Painting,' in which he analyzed the landscape painting of Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties; three of Lin's points had great significance for Zao Wouki. Those were, first, that Sui and Tang dynasties represented not only the summit of Chinese painting, but also the beginning of its landscape painting tradition; second, that Chinese landscape painting in the beginning involved highly abstract motifs; and third, that in Song landscape painting, artists sought to reduce and simplify the forms they saw. Lin's understanding of Chinese landscape painting helped Zao to interprete landscape from an entirely new, abstract perspective. He absorbed the unique atmosphere and forms of expression in Chinese landscape painting and made them part of his work in oils.
After 1960, Zao entered a period of complete abstract style. Western abstraction deals with management of forms on the canvas, and Zao's approach, where his great concern and feeling for nature was sublimated into an abstract vocabulary, placed him at some distance from this Western approach. Zao's paintings from the '60s onward therefore reflect a principle line of development that runs from his initial enthusiasm with Western abstraction to his return to Chinese traditions. But Zao's return to tradition, rather than a simple emulation of style or form, took place at the higher level of his philosophical and aesthetic outlook.4-6-62 (Lot 1006) clearly displays its creative origins, as can be seen in the handling of the picture space and the influence of painting Early Spring (Fig. 3) by Song dynasty painter Kuo Hsi. Kuo Hsi employs slightly distorted, arcing lines of brushwork and carefully gauged variations in density of ink, out of which rocks and cliffs emerge in vivid, three-dimensional texture. Their jagged, twisting forms, winding grandly into the distance, help create depth. A similar form of expression can be found in Zao's work, but with a unique transformation. Zao models his vigorous brushstrokes on the inky depth of calligraphic lines; they arc gracefully into the distance as they gradually move upwards from the bottom of the canvas, calling to mind images of dragons snaking powerfully through the mists, or the airy reach of the peaks in Kuo Hsi's work. Zao also displays superb craftsmanship in his ability to meld such calligraphic lines with the free application of colour. His expressive lines allow us to observe the artist as he manipulates the brush; we follow the pulse and flow of his creative imagination the rhythms of its natural swings between calm and excitement. With his understanding that Chinese art derives its basic visual elements from the energy of the brush, Zao injects calligraphy's rhythmic energy into his work. His lines leap and fall with great sweeps of energy, or rest within the lingering appeal of graceful curves, so that the fundamental symbols and gestures of his work acquire the same dignity and grace as great calligraphy. In .4-6-62, Zao sweeps metallic gold and green pigments across the canvas in a colouristic space that weaves and folds back in upon itself. Different shades of the same basic hue nevertheless produce visual layers of varying richness and density, once again suggesting Kuo Hsi's jutting scarps and cliffs and the mists that float and wander among their rocks and crags. Both artists seem to be reaching for the same sense of rising vapours and shadows shifting among the mountains, the same feeling of lofty, imposing space. Zao thus borrows aptly from the Song and Yuan traditions. He learned from them a certain manner of expressing nature's flowing energies, the dimensionality of objects, and the folding of space. His great breakthrough was to reinterpret these aesthetic elements, employing the forms and textures of the oil medium with startling imagination and potential for variety. He avoids the direct presentation of forms, figurative elements, or imitations of nature in his work, giving voice instead to underlie the abstract feeling of the spaces; their internal movements and the life force harmonize within the natural landscape. This energy of movement was latent within the textures of traditional Chinese landscape paintings, but Zao Wou-ki abstracted it and made it the central creative focus of his work. Nature and the universe, the great energies of life, and the flow and shift of time became his subjects; his paintings build up spaces that are highly abstracted and hold deep philosophical implications.
Zao noted that at one point in his development, "the outer world can no longer provide me satisfaction." Beyond what is visible to the naked eye, Zao felt the presence of other, invisible quantities and created from them a new world, into which no one had ever previously set foot. In 1959, Zao bought a storage space and transformed it into a working studio, which was completed in 1963. In its design, it was intended to be completely separate from the outside world, with no windows but only a glass roof to provide natural lighting. Zao defined his space as a totally isolated working venue to avoid any substantial contact with the reality of the world adjoining it. It became a kind of sealed-off space formeditation where nothing could intrude. Zao's design was intended to liberate him from the mundane world, and even from the restrictions of the images found in nature, in order to release his inner imagination into his canvases, where he would create a new kind of space. This space would in effect be nothing other than an image of the artist's mind. By this time, Zao was even more certain of his future direction, which was "to dare to create new colours, new spaces, to create visions of grace and lightness." In Zao's 'new space,' line and colour were wholly under the sway of the artist and underwent changes under his bidding, in a nearly infinite variety of transformations.
"My paintings became an indicator of my emotional life, because in them I revealed my feelings and state of mind with no inhibition whatsoever. I don't need to look for any other subjects, and I don't necessarily need to use any particular colour. There is no particular colour that expresses, say, anger more appropriately than any other; in fact it's the relationship between the colours-the way they blend, or conflict with each other, or the way they love or reject each other. I no longer have a strong preference for any particular colour; they're all equally good, and what is good about them depends entirely on how I go about combining them. I've also discovered that I don't have to paint figures or motifs in space as I used to, or to make clear divisions between colours. And in the way different shades can be combined I discovered the notion of spatial depth".
- Zao Wou-ki
Zao Wou-ki's paintings are ridden with rich and deep feelings, like the beautiful and moving personal images that return to stir our emotions time and again. They embrace artistic visions that change with the fluidity of roiling, magically shifting clouds; roaring waves in the blurred distance of the sea subside and vanish into mysterious spaces; their moods send up shrouds of smoke and fire from shuddering, agitated inner fields of battle. At the end of the 1960s, Zao returned to Chinese ink-wash painting he had known so well since childhood. At first, it was just a form of relaxation, to spend few moments away from the intense concentration that oil painting demanded of him. But gradually, the experience of its brush movements and the sheer variety of changes produced by the dense and wet or dry ink brought out something more profound. Zao's work in the 1970s therefore traces a path back to the principles behind China's ink-wash painting and its impressionistic effects, as he began to handle his oil medium in a similar fashion. He began to thin his oil pigments with greater amounts of turpentine, to better reproduce the same kind of washes and splashes of colour and the effects of shimmering, winding mists on to his canvases.
Zao Wou-ki's works from 1971 and 1972 are relatively rare, but among them is the notable 8-2-72 (Lot 1007). It embraces a spiritual realm of strange peace and forgetfulness of self, as well as the philosophical ideal, found in Chinese thinking, of the unity of man with all that surrounds him. Standing before his canvas, Zao must have felt immersed in an unbound universe, meditating on scenes of nature, its mountains and rivers, and the changes caused by the countless eons of time and changing climate that shaped them into what they are, in a history reaching back to before the appearance of man himself. The problems that disturb the human heart seem vanishingly small when compared with the greatness of creation, and troubled moods vanish here in the midst of this space of graceful, quick movement and thought. It is an unusual composition that fills out the spaces of this virtually square canvas. In comparison with works from the '60s, with their complex brushwork and heavy colours concentrated in the center of the canvas, in 8-2-72 the reverse is true: a large empty space fills the centre, while a marvelous play of colour takes place along the top and the lower left and right sides of the canvas. The sparseness of colour in the centre is akin to the 'blank' white spaces of Chinese painting, though it seems to contain within itself an energy like the roiling, turbulent primordial energy prior to the formation of physical matter and beings - or perhaps it is the space that gave birth to light itself, or the nebulous region from which somehow life itself began to emerge. The central portion, while large, is hardly empty, expressing with its pure colours and white spaces the 'imaginative space,' the 'quintessence,' and the 'purity' valued in Chinese artistic conceptions. In the light that wells up from the centre of 8-2-72, oil pigments of a single individual hue nevertheless metamorphose into visual layers of different weights and densities, showing just how this artist continued to expand his grasp of the oil medium and overcome its limitations, making it a medium from which he could create any kind of space he could imagine.
The world within 8-2-72 is entirely abstract in form, but one imprinted with the rhythms of life. In it viewers will project aesthetic reflections of their own, and will inevitably see within it images that reflect the vastness of nature. This is an abstract mode of painting based firmly in Eastern traditions but which, in its spirit, mingles the art of both East and West.
Zao Wou-ki joined Eastern and Western perspectives of art, producing a uniquely Eastern understanding of "abstraction" which allows the two to come together in spirit. He brought to fruition the efforts of two generations of Chinese artists, beginning with Lin Fengmian and Wu Dayu, to create oil paintings under the guidance of the presence of Chinese thinking and spirit. In his art, some of the finest treasures of Chinese culture, from the abstract nature of its pictographic characters to the unique atmosphere of Tang and Song landscapes in ink, are put on display within the Western oil medium. Zao helped the traditional spirit of Chinese culture to awaken into a new renaissance, to display it in new forms to people everywhere, and his work stands alone as the finest point of convergence that has been produced by the fusion of Eastern and Western art.